12 ways better civics teaching creates ‘reflective patriots’

Teachers need more resources to lead inquiry-based instruction rather than memorization of names and dates
By: | March 3, 2021
(AdobeStock/Jon Anders Wiken)

Seven key themes, and five design challenges, anchor a new set of social studies guidelines that have been developed to help teachers improve civics and history instruction.

The overriding goal of the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap and Report is to give schools more resources to use inquiry-based instruction—rather than rote memorization of names and dates—to develop graduates who can participate productively in a democratic and diverse society.

A decreased investment in civics and history education is inextricably linked to the the deep political divisions in U.S. society are a major, says Paul Carrese, the director, of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University.

Since the nation’s founding, American having been disagreeing about and debating principles of Democracy, Carrese says.


An overview of the roadmap: How to fix a deepening crisis in history and civics education


“We talk quite a lot in the roadmap about civic virtue, to include civil disagreement and civic friendships,” he says.

“We think young people in K-12 can learn civic virtues as well as import historical, constitutional and political knowledge and then be prepared to be reflective patriots.”

7 key civics concepts

The roadmap identifies seven themes to build inquiry-driven social studies instructions:

1. Civic participation: Students will explore the principles, values, habits and skills that support productive engagement in a healthy, resilient constitutional democracy.

2. Our changing landscapes: The American civic experience is tied to a particular place, and students must examine the history of how the United States developed the physical and geographical shape it had and, also, the complex experiences of harm and benefit which that history has delivered to different portions of the American population. Civics learning must also analyze our responsibility to the natural world.

3. We the People: “The people” is a political concept—it’s not just groups who share a physical landscape but who also share political ideals and institutions. Students will consider how the contemporary concept of “the American people” can build civic understanding about how political institutions and shared ideals can connect a diverse population to shared decision-making.

4. A new government and constitution: This theme explores the institutional history of the United States as well as the theoretical underpinnings of constitutional design.

5. Institutional and social transformations: Social arrangements and conflicts have combined with political institutions to shape American life from the earliest colonial period to the present. Students will investigate which moments of change have most defined the country and builds understanding of how institutions and society change.


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6. A people in the world: This theme focuses on the place of the U.S. and the American people in a global context, covering key historical events in international affairs and the principles, values, and laws at stake in debates about America’s role in the world.

7. A people with contemporary debates and possibilities: Historical narratives shape current political arguments as values and information shape policy arguments. The “American people” continues to renew or remake itself in fulfilling the promise of constitutional democracy.

5 design challenges

The roadmap also provides five design challenges that put inquiry at the center of social studies instruction:

1. Motivating Agency, Sustaining the Republic:

  • Helping students understand the full context of their roles as civic participants without creating a sense of the insignificance of their own agency in relation to the magnitude of our society, the globe, and shared challenges.
  • Helping students become engaged citizens who also sustain civil disagreement and civic friendship.
  • Helping students students pursue civic action that is authentic, responsible and informed.

2. America’s Plural Yet Shared Story:

  • How can we integrate the perspectives of Americans from all different backgrounds when narrating a history of the U.S. and analyzing the philosophical foundations of American constitutional democracy?
  • How can this more complete story of our history be a common story and the shared inheritance of all Americans?

3. Celebrating and Critiquing Compromise:

  • Simultaneously teaching the value and the danger of compromise for a free, diverse, and self-governing people.
  • Helping students make sense of the paradox that Americans continuously disagree about the ideal shape of self-government while agreeing to preserve shared institutions.

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4. Civic Honesty, Reflective Patriotism:

  • Offer an account of U.S. constitutional democracy that is honest about the wrongs of the past without falling into cynicism, and is also appreciative of the founding of the United States without tipping into adulation.

5. Balancing the Concrete and the Abstract:

  • Help students move between concrete, narrative, and chronological learning, and thematic and abstract or conceptual learning.